Requiem for America's space shuttle program

Emotionally, I almost can't accept that NASA is out of the airframe-lofting business for the next bunch of years.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Update: See the end of this article for a comment by a Shuttle worker.

I live in Brevard County, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center. I'm not from here. I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Massachusetts, New York, and California. Even though I've now lived in Brevard for six years, I'm still not fully "of" this place. I don't like the heat, I don't like the sand, and I'm not partial to the sun.

I do like the people, though. When we left New Jersey, the typical Wal-Mart greeter would say hello or goodbye with something along the lines of "What are you looking at?" When we moved to Florida, the contrasting "Have a blessed day" was quite nice. Now, I'm way, way far from being a religious man, but I'll take the warmth of "Have a blessed day" any time over the implied threat of the typical New Jersey conversation. Religious-tinged greetings are weird, admittedly, but they're also kind of sweet.

I'm telling you this because a lot (a lot) of my fellow Brevardians are about to lose their jobs. Brevard is not exactly a top-tier county when it comes to employment, but now that the last Space Shuttle mission is about to fly, another 1,900 or so hard-working Americans are going to be out of work.

I am of very mixed feelings here.

It bothers me deeply that once Atlantis roars off Pad 39A and executes Mission STS-135, America will no longer have a civilian lift capacity of any kind. The idea that we'll have to rely on the Russians (of all nations) to bring us to the International Space Station rankles down to my ankles.

On the other hand, America's space program has been mind-blowingly expensive and has had some very serious failures. NASA has been run into the ground with some astoundingly poor management practices, and -- at the same time -- civilian space flight has blossomed.

There is no doubt that the Space Shuttle fleet is old.

It's 30 years old, this year. STS-1 with the Space Shuttle Columbia, was launched on April 12, 1981 off the very same pad, Pad 39A, that Atlantis will be leaving on later today. We all watched in horror after 27 missions, when Columbia's final flight ended fatally, when it broke apart on re-entry in February 2003.

According to an article in the Washington Post, the shuttle airframes are certified for 100 flights, and most have logged less than half of that.

And yet, we all know what's inside the shuttles: 1970s technology. The machines are old and obsolete and should have been replaced years ago. Of course, as we all know, the United States didn't replace the shuttles. Programs were planned, and then cancelled. Budgets were requested, and then nerfed.

America's space program has been the story of both the right stuff -- and the wrong stuff. Of American heroes -- and political failures.

So here we are. Atlantis is on the pad. America's space-bound future is on hold. And, pretty soon, we'll be dependent on the Russians to get back and forth to the space station we, here in America, pioneered.

Like many things in America, there is no black-and-white answer.

Emotionally, I almost can't accept that NASA is out of the airframe-lofting business for the next bunch of years. But as a fiscally-conscious American, I also viscerally despise the waste and stupidity we've seen managing many of America's projects.

We will never regain the idealism of the day when JFK challenged us to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. Maybe that's a good thing. For idealism can obscure inspection, introspection, and examination, and as we've seen -- over and over -- the American space program is exceptional, but flawed. It needs inspection and oversight.

It also needs a new vision, one for the next decade and, yes, for the next century.

This is an opportunity for President Obama and the Candidates 2012. I do believe America must have home-owned orbital lofting capability outside the military. I also know that many of the innovations we enjoy daily are here as a side-effect of the American space program.

Looking into the future, we need a vision, a strategy, and a commitment to space -- efficient, effective, smart space travel. Perhaps one of our upcoming candidates will outline a plan. Perhaps President Obama will revisit some of his decisions. Or, perhaps we'll bequeath the pride, excitement, and industrial and technological advancement that comes from having a space program to one of those other countries, like China or Russia.

Man, that'd be a shame, wouldn't it?

Shortly after I moved down here to Brevard county, I was in my home office when the entire roof shook. I'd experienced that sort of shaking in California; it almost felt like an earthquake and it sounded like a roof beam had cracked. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was what it felt like when a shuttle broke the sound barrier.

Since that day, I've had the opportunity to feel my roof shake, to hear the crack, and to experience the sonic boom of our shuttles breaking the sound barrier almost 20 times.

Later today, I hope to feel that shake one...last...time.

Update: The following was posted to the comments below by someone who says he works in the shuttle program. It's a statement I thought worthy of having you all read:

I am a Shuttle Program employee. Today a room was set aside for Space Shuttle Program employees with video for last Space Shuttle launch ever. As people entered the room some laughed and joked but as the launch came near the room quieted. The final moments arrived and the Shuttle launched receiving applause. Then as the moments after liftoff stretched into minutes the silence remained. Several left with tears in their eyes. Most remained until external tank separation. As I left only silence was heard. Entering an packed elevator the doors closed behind me. There also only silence.

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